Time and time again, I’ve heard visitors from Europe comment on how overly sweet and fatty American cakes and cookies are by comparison. After thumbing through Polish cookbooks, old and new, all I can say is: point well-taken. European cakes and cookies tend to be less sweet, contain less fat, and are, therefore, drier. After thumbing through Early American cookbooks, I noticed that it was the same story way back then.
I’m sure historians have already theorized what prompted the change from less sugar to more sugar. My guess is that it was due to a variety of factors, perhaps including a drop in the price of sugar, the industrial revolution, and the advent of processed foods. Maybe. But European baked goods to this day still tend to be less sweet. As much as I am attracted to moist, gooey, chewy, and very, very sweet cakes and cookies, I know in my heart of hearts that I need to cut down on my sugar intake.
In Amelia Simmons’ 1798 recipe book, American Cookery, there are several recipes for “Loaf Cake.” I counted a total of 5. Must mean it was a go-to cake! All recipes indicate use of a form of home grown yeast called “emptins.” At that time, bakers’ yeast hadn’t been introduced into the home kitchen. There was no baking soda or baking powder either. Although I don’t have my own stockpile of emptins, I was intent on making this low sugar loaf cake to both get in touch with American culinary history, and to see whether this type of cake could survive my modern-day American taste-buds. My prediction was yes. I took a couple of the recipes to formulate my own version that doesn’t rely on emptins. Here are the original recipes I mainly referred to.
But how to make heads or tails out of this? I cut down the proportions and tried to create a modified version using sour dough starter. That version seemed to have worked out OK. Check out my Sour Dough Starter post to see what it looked like coming out of the oven. Since it’s not realistic to expect that everyone has sour dough starter lying around, I tried to come up with a version that uses baking powder and baking soda. Why not baker’s yeast? It seemed to me that our quick breads might be the modern-day equivalent of this loaf cake, so I thought baking powder and baking soda would make more sense. Also, using baker’s yeast didn’t work out so well for me (I tried it and failed). And finally–who would try to make this loaf cake if you have to play around with yeast dough just to have a simple cake?
I combined the dry ingredients–flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and a couple of spices.
In a large bowl using an electric mixer, I creamed the butter and sugar together.
Then came a healthy dose of eggs that I beat with a fork first, and then mixed into the butter/sugar mixture.
Earlier, I prepared the raisins by tossing them in some flour. Oddly, neither raisins nor spices are reflected in the original title of the cake, “Loaf Cake.”
I added the dry ingredients alternating with some milk and sherry into the batter and then mixed in the raisins.
The batter was thick. I spooned the batter into the loaf pans. It was just about evenly divided (ha, ha). Into the oven they went.
About 55 minutes later, the cakes were ready to come out of the oven. I let them sit for 10 minutes in the pans as I would usually do for other cakes, and then turned them onto a wire rack to cool completely.
Then came a dusting of confectioners sugar.
I later drizzled a quick sherry glaze on one of the loaves to see which version would be better. Both are good.
In the original recipe, a frosting is recommended. It is a frosting made from egg whites beaten with sugar (meringue) that is to be placed on the cakes right when the cakes come out of the oven. In her recipe book, Amelia Simmons warns that “it does best without being returned into the oven.” Well, that means raw egg whites, so I was hesitant to try it this time! I have had such a frosting before though. Many years ago, my piano teacher from my youth–who sadly passed away recently–made a delicious Russian cake frosted with such a meringue. She also beat in fresh berries. I remember it to this day. Mmmmm good.
If served right away after cooling, this loaf cake is on the dry side. But, I’m happy to report, it’s pretty good anyway. It’s like the cake version of a sweet scone. I recommend refrigerating the loaves overnight before serving. The cake is moister and all around tastes better. My family just loves this loaf cake, and it makes a terrific coffee cake! The recipe has gone mainstream in my kitchen and is no longer just a relic from the past!